Unpacking the Truth

Packer seeks to understand the world through his writing

The subtitle of the Mercantile Library’s lecture series is “Writing to Change the World.” Few people embody that sentiment better than George Packer.

Currently a staff writer for The New Yorker, Packer has been doing exactly that in various books, essays and articles over the last two decades, including his deeply incisive 2005 book Assassins’ Gate, which examined the U.S. policy that led to the invasion of Iraq, the impact the war had on ordinary Iraqis, the Bush administration’s complete ineptitude after the fall of Baghdad and the many complex issues that remain unresolved four years later. Yes, Assassins’ Gate, perhaps more than any other single piece of reporting, changed the way many thought about Iraq.

Packer, who just returned from a trip to Pakistan, took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions before he speaks at the Mercantile on Thursday.

CityBeat: Can a writer really change the world?
George Packer: Of course writing can change the world. It doesn’t happen directly or immediately; it happens over a long period of time as people’s consciousness changes because of what they read and see and think. (But) I don’t think journalists or literary writers should expect to right the wrongs of the world by virtue of what they put down on paper. It doesn’t happen that way.

CB: I also think it’s much harder given the nature of our fractured media landscape.
GP: Yes. We have a real problem of a fractured world of information in which there are no longer a handful of reliable sources that can, to some extent, be neutral arbiters of what’s important and what’s true. Instead we have millions of sources. Everyone with a modem is his own news outlet. The torrent of information on the Internet has made people more ill informed and more prone to false ideas, partisan ideology and downright delusional thinking. It’s not as if the average American, whether in southeast Ohio or anywhere else, is uniformed; it’s that it’s too easy for people to attach themselves to the outlet that sets their worldview, whether it’s Fox News, MSNBC, one of the blogs or whatever.

CB: How was your trip to Pakistan?
GP: And Afghanistan. Sort of the usual combination of interesting and depressing — there’s a lot happening, a lot to sort out. It’s impossible to know those places quickly. I came back pretty hum bled by how complex and deep the issues are, but I do have a sense of the massive scale of difficulty. I don’t think Americans are aware how tough it is. … There is war and news fatigue in America, and in some ways our situation there is worse than it’s ever been since 9/11. So how do you keep the public’s appetite to hear about it? If you’re in government, how do you keep the public’s appetite to continue to support a policy of involvement? I have a feeling that more and more Americans wonder, “What are we doing over there?” It’s a difficult situation.

CB: You’ve also written more about domestic issues lately, specifically the housing crisis. Why the shift from foreign reporting?
GP: I began to feel that the culture in the country had changed profoundly in the last few decades. It’s hard to describe or sum it up, but there’s been sort of a revolution in what you might call economic morals. To put it in a sort of blunt nutshell: Rich people amassed a great deal of wealth and routinely cheated on their taxes, and middle-class and poor people amassed a great deal of debt and then walked away from their mortgages and their credit cards.

This is an untenable state of affairs for the superpower, and I think it’s cost our power in the world greatly. There may be some signs of incipient decline or it may be a trench that we’re now going to have to crawl our way out of. We have to try to regain some of the financial security, the forward thinking, the generosity and the sense that we’re all in it together (that we’ve had in the past). I think Obama won the election in part because he articulated all of that.

GEORGE PACKER speaks at the Mercantile Library on Thursday. To RSVP, call 513-621-0717.

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